Passion radiates from Jonathan Brown's eyes. His tone exudes confidence. His mannerisms resemble the player on whom he patterns his on-field demeanor: Ray Lewis.
Illinois' weak-side linebacker embodies so many of the attributes coaches crave in a leader. Yet the senior would be the first to admit his shortcomings nearly kept him from his obligations.
Brown was one of the marquee names on a miserable 2-10 Illini team from a year ago. But based on his own admission, he was far from a role model.
"The route I was going wasn't the best route,'' Brown said. "In school, on the field … I wasn't doing everything the right way.
"When you haven't looked in the mirror in a while and you look in the mirror, you always have to see that person that you want to become. If you haven't looked in it in a while, the person in it can scare you.''
Brown encountered serious academic issues, although he declined to discuss details.
Asked how close he was to academic ineligibility, Brown responded, "I was close. Let's just leave it that.''
On the field, Brown was among a handful of defensive players reluctant to buy into new defensive coordinator Tim Banks' scheme. Brown still felt an allegiance to former coordinator Vic Koenning, who orchestrated a Top 10 defense in 2011.
"You had to realize that even though Coach Vic's system worked, this is what we have now," he said. "It was a maturing process.''
Some extreme circumstances also contributed to Brown's personal growth. Amid the chaos of last season, he suffered a season-ending injury against Ohio State Nov. 3. His pectoral muscle separated from his right shoulder on a routine play. Brown subsequently had surgery Nov. 26 at home in Memphis, Tenn.
"As it went on with the end of the season and me being out, my whole thought process was, 'What can I do to get this team better?' Brown said. "I was just thinking about that because the people around here — not even the fans but my brothers, the people I go out to battle with — we deserve better than that.''
These days, Brown is far from the undisciplined kid who once kneed a Northwestern lineman in the groin area to draw a one-game suspension. He heeded the advice of his parents, and now he's the one who pulls a teammate to the side after a boneheaded decision.
This summer, right before training camp, Brown organized a film session with all the linebackers, unsolicited by the coaches.
"It was just a chance for everybody to communicate what they saw,'' Brown said. "Better communications leads to better chemistry.''
Although many believe head coach Tim Beckman's job remains in serious jeopardy, the coaching staff and players have maintained a positive outlook throughout training camp. Illinois could have a legitimate offense under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, although uncertainty persists. The influx of talent from 33 eager newcomers has made practice all the more competitive.
And leadership has been evident from guys such as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, right tackle Corey Lewis, defensive end Tim Kynard and Brown.
"He's not just a great player, but he's committed to making himself and this team better,'' Beckman said of Brown. "He's watching film with freshmen. He is a coach on the field. The biggest thing we've talked to him about is focusing on what he has to do, with the NFL right there.''
Brown said he would be lying to say the NFL is not on his mind. He considered declaring early last season and might have carried through if not for the shoulder injury. One NFL scout projected Brown as a fifth-round pick last season.
The Illini have produced five first-round NFL draft picks in the last five seasons, including three on defense. It might take some work, but maybe Brown could add his name to the group.
"My dad (former Memphis linebacker Rod Brown) went through the same process but didn't get drafted, and he had friends who played in the NFL so I have great references,'' Brown said. "Dad also told me, 'You have to play for tomorrow but work in the moment.' That's what I've been doing.''
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